Royal Occasions 

17 May 2021


Scotlights issue 3 cover

From Scotlights, the house magazine of Scottish Television, issue 3 for Autumn 1962

A love-sick schoolboy, oblivious to the aching discomfort of the wooden bench in the Theatre Royal gallery, gazes with adoring eyes on the principal boy and wishes he were twenty years older so that he could marry her.

The allegedly happiest days of his life pass, and he becomes the copyboy in a newspaper. Seeking a few props for a Sunday School play, he acts on his Editor’s suggestion and calls on Harry Ashton, the monocled, dry-witted manager of the Royal.

He is duly announced and ushered into the office above the circle bar. On learning the boy’s mission and who had sent him, Harry explodes:

“That nasty bit of work! I’m surprised at a nice boy like you working for a rat like that. And you can go back and tell him so to his face — without my compliments!”

At that moment, a somewhat discomfited Editor emerges from behind a curtain, hastily explains it was only a joke, and says: “Come on, Harry, help the laddie out with what he wants from the store.”

I’ve sometimes wondered what effect it might have had on the youngster’s career if he had agreed with Harry’s sentiments…

For the love-sick schoolboy and the props-seeker was I.

That incident was the start of a lifelong friendship with Harry Ashton and association with the Theatre Royal in my subsequent career as a columnist. The art of gossip-writing, I should explain, lies in extracting a story from someone who doesn’t realise he’s got one. Running a daily column qualifies one for ringside seats on glamorous, exciting and boring occasions, but ever-present is the sobering reminder that the next day’s column is blank, except for a decaying par or two in the held-over galley.

Hundreds of times, I’ve left the office and stepped into fog-shrouded canyons, groping for inspiration. Inevitably, I’d make for the Royal, see if Harry Ashton had anything new to tell me, then do the rounds of the dressing-rooms.


Proscenium arch


It pays to be a good listener in my racket. Not that there’s an alternative with stage folks, of course. That news-sense which develops with experience, automatically fastens on to an angle in the monologue, and it’s then you start probing.

The column begins to assume mental shape. You move on to other night spots, and a few hours later the well-battered typewriter is jellifying the fruits of the evening’s harvest, ready for the early-duty sub to digest.

And so to bed, accompanied by the final waking thought: “Where the hell will I find something tomorrow night to fill that bloody page?”

For me, the Theatre Royal is peopled with ghosts. Not the spooky variety — nice ones who, in their day, gave immense pleasure to the masses and many a story to me.

The architects and the tradesmen may knock the interior around, shoving up a new partition here, making a fresh corridor there, but they can’t fool me.

I can find my way blindfold from the stage-door keeper’s wee box to Harry Gordon’s dressing-room, partly now the domain of the Floor Managers. Or to the A and B star dressing-rooms where Sean Magee hangs out.

And many’s the drink Mrs Lely and Bessie have poured for me in the lofty marble-walled circle bar, where Arthur Montford, Wally Butler, Ian Dalgleish and Jimmy Sutherland plan their shows.

In the march of events, I regret the passing of two foyer features — that roaring fire against which I toasted myself so often awaiting a tardy spouse, and the “1880” date set in the mosaic floor commemorating the Royal’s last major construction before the advent of Scottish Television.

Glasgow seems never to have been without a Theatre Royal over the last hundred and-more years. As fire destroyed one, another would pop up in another street. I’ve no idea when the original Royal opened in Dunlop Street, but Bill Duncan has a rare souvenir of it — a daybill dated June 22, 1859.

What a bargain theatregoers were offered… just fancy, two three-act plays in one programme at these prices: Upper Gallery 6d. Pit 1s, Stalls 2s, Boxes 2s 6d. For that, they got “Damon and Pythias” and “The King’s Musketeers.” [Editor’s note: it’s difficult to translate prices from more than 100 years ago into modern amounts, but a rough guide allowing for inflation would be 6d = £3.25; 1s = £6.50; 2s = £12.85; 2s 6d = £29]

And what woman could resist this concession: “During the summer season, bonnets may be worn in the Dress Circle!”

These were the days when woman’s mountainous crowning glory was still further crowned with atrocious foot-high hats laden with flowers, fruit and other fripperies. Even in my youth, women were requested to remove their hats at the theatre and cinema.

Queen Street was the site of the next Royal. But for the purpose of our story, the corner of Hope Street and Cowcaddens becomes the significant link. For it was there in 1863, practically a century ago, that Baylis’s Royal Colosseum Theatre and Opera House opened. The entrance was in Cowcaddens, approximately where you and I arrive for work each day.

Even then, take-overs were fashionable. The ambitious Howard and Wyndham concern decided to expand their boundaries beyond Edinburgh, so they bought out the Baylis management. First act of the new owners was to rename the place the Theatre Royal.

Cue for the fire-bug to take the stage — and bring down the house.

That was in 1879. Faced with reconstruction, Howard and Wyndham decided to abandon the Cowcaddens and have the entrance round the corner in Hope Street where it is now. That’s when “1880” was worked into the floor pattern.


Outside of the Theatre Royal


On the opening week, Mr George Alexander and his company from the St. James’s Theatre presented five plays. The only repeat was Mr Pinero’s latest and very daring play, “The Second Mrs Tanqueray.”

Five years elapsed — then another fire. Not so serious this time; it was business as usual after a few months’ closure.

Fred Wyndham was the Stewart Cruikshank of his day. Every Christmas from 1888, when he produced the Royal’s first panto, “The Forty Thieves,” until 1925 he personally supervised every pantomime.

It’s noteworthy that as early as 1897 Fred Wyndham had the audacity to introduce “animated pictures” at the Royal — into a pantomime at that. “Puss in Boots,” it was, and the highlight was a film in colour of the previous year’s Queen Victoria’s Jubilee celebrations.

Speaking of movies and for the record, The Royal was the first theatre in town to book seats and have fixed performances for two World War I classics, “Intolerance” and “Birth of a Nation” — a practice continued in the early ’20’s with films like “The Prisoner of Zenda.” with vocal accompaniment by local singers.

The “Scotch comic” vogue in Royal pantomimes was pioneered by Harry Lauder. During the 1905-06 season of “Aladdin,” he was encored repeatedly for his new song, “I Love a Lassie,” and was obviously worth every penny of the then fabulous salary of £2000 [1905 to now = about £250,000] a week.

Makes you think, on reflecting that some comedians command £1000 [1962 to now = £21,600] for only one hour on television today . . .

They brought back Lauder five years later in “Red Riding Hood.” A decade was to pass before Will Fyffe started the famous run of funny men — Tommy Lome, Harry Gordon, Dave Willis and George West, all friends of mine. I treasure the watch Tommy Lome gave me in appreciation of writing his life story.

I like to slip into Studio A when all is still. The cameras, cables and booms of the electronic age melt away, and, in fancy, I see between the familiar proscenium columns a montage of moments from memorable productions.

The imagination stirs on realising that such illustrious entertainers as Sarah Bernhardt, Sir Charles Wyndham, Maud Allan, Mrs Pat Campbell, Lewis Waller, Martin Harvey, Herbert Tree and Henry Irving frequently appeared behind that safety curtain.

Which reminds me, being a hydraulic affair, it only needed a watermain to burst and there was no performance — that fire curtain has had its temperamental tantrums.

Mention any aspect of show business — the Royal’s staged it. Revues, films, music-hall, ballet, summer shows, circuses, plays, light and grand opera, orchestral concerts. Why, they even had the chariot race from “Ben Hur,” and acrobatic Mark Lupino, in an “Aladdin” panto, sprang 74 traps in six minutes.

The Royal pioneered such novelties as male principal boys and female dames; it was the first theatre to introduce teas at the intervals; in October, 1915, smoking was allowed at the Royal, the first provincial theatre to follow London’s lead.

This was one of Laurence Olivier’s favourite theatres, making its acquaintance on his first professional tour in “The Ghost Train,” in which he played a comic cop. He once showed me a yellowing cutting recording his debut with the play in Brighton.

Larry made his entrance by tripping over a scenery strut and falling headlong into the set. A local critic drily reported:

“Mr Olivier made the most of a very small part.”

There can be few of us in Scottish Television, privileged witnesses of the ringing down of the Royal curtain for the last time on Saturday, February 16, 1957, and its raising on the exciting new medium of commercial television on Saturday, August 31, of the same year.

The death of a theatre is a bleak, melancholy business; neither the lavish hospitality nor the valiant efforts of the “Robinson Crusoe” company, including Jack Radcliffe and Aly Wilson, could dissipate the feeling of desolation at parting from an old friend.

But I must say it was a lot of fun six months later on the night of S.T.V.’s glittering debut exchanging reminiscences with chums like Jack Buchanan, Jimmy Logan, Stanley Baxter, James Robertson Justice, Deborah Kerr, David Niven, Alastair Sim, Moira Shearer and Ken McKellar.


STV ident


Nobody can tell me with any certainty when the Bijou Picture Palace opened or closed. It is interlinked with the establishment which allows us to have chips with everything, for its demolition, after nearly 30 years of darkness and subsequent reconstruction, released a torrent of cramped bodies from the Royal.

The Bijou in Cowcaddens was a flea-pit. If one had three-farthings, the Saturday matinee was accessible, the programme consisting of maybe “Robin Hood and His Merry Men,” plus the latest “Indian, cowboy and funny pictures.”

There were inducements like “Every child gets a big packet of sweets and a good seat” for 1d, 2d, 3d, and “Mr D. D. Metcher, the manager, intends giving away to boys and girls a handsome picture book at the matinee.”

Frank Morris was the last manager of the Theatre Royal. I’ve known Frank since he came to the theatre as assistant manager soon after the war. What memories he must have of the brave days when the orchestral pit had to be extended to accommodate 90 musicians from Covent Garden, the fantastic demand for seats to see Moira Shearer dance after her success in the film “Red Shoes”…

FOOTLIGHT: That love-sick schoolboy at the start of my story met the girl of his dreams years later and confessed his calf infatuation. Deadpan, she said: “I don’t think I could have married you — my four children might have objected. To say nothing of my husband. And don’t tell anyone, but I was over thirty at the time!”


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